Identity and Oneness: A First-Timer’s View of the Association for Bahá’í Studies Annual Conference
Niki Daniels Niki is a member of the Wilmette Institute Board and also works part-time for the Institute, helping learners to sign up for courses, creating videos, laying out article copy for the eNewsletter, among many other duties. She is also faculty for Racism in America: The Most Challenging Issue and a course now called Science, Religion, and the Bahá’í Faith. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, she studied biochemistry at the University of the West Indies, worked at the Police Forensic Lab in Kingston, and obtained a Master’s degree in forensic chemistry through a scholarship from the British Government. That scholarship, together with Niki’s experience in groups such as the Jamaica Musical Theatre Company and the National Chorale opened the door for a position with the British Council Caribbean as Arts & Education Officer. When the Council downsized its local operations Niki was appointed Manager of the British Council in Jamaica. She became a Bahá’í in 2001 and has served on the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Kingston and the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Jamaica. A lover of all religions, especially of religious writings, she has been an enthusiastic participant in the interfaith movement in South Carolina. In her spare time she crochets, enjoys walks to the lake near her house, takes photographs of the beautiful South Carolina landscape, and posts illustrated scriptural quotations on her website: www.heart2heartdesign.org, where her board game, Heart to Heart, can be found. In 2018 she became a U.S. citizen.—THE EDITORS
by Niki Daniels
The Association for Bahá’í Studies for North America (known informally as ABS) holds an annual conference either in the United States or in Canada. This year’s conference, its forty-second, was at the Sheraton Atlanta in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, from August 9 through noon on August 12. Its focus was the “wide implications of civilization building for discourse across all disciplines.”
For a first-time conference attendee, the program was exciting but, at thirty-two pages, also daunting. For adults there were plenary sessions, workshops, simultaneous breakout sessions, working-group sessions (in agriculture, economics, health, indigenous studies, law)—all spread over three stories of the hotel—and for children and youth, classes for the entire three and half days. There was also a large bookstore, a prayer-and-meditation room, and a screening of The Gate: The Story of the Báb. Speakers included representatives of the Counselors for North America and of the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly; dignitaries from Atlanta and at least one Atlanta university; youth, adults, and elders; and a number of Wilmette Institute faculty and Web Talk speakers.
As this was my first time at ABS, I spent a lot of time poring over the conference program trying to decide which sessions to attend. Most of the conference program consisted of breakout sessions organized into research themes or tracks: Social Action, Leadership, Indigenous Studies, Health, Scholarship, Race, Governance, History, Economics, Sciences, Philosophy, Law, and Resilience. I was a little surprised to find no track for the Arts, although the youth program (from which I was excluded for obvious reasons) did have two arts-related sessions: “Social Media, Music, You” and an “Interactive Session with Native American Artist and Author,” Kevin Locke.
I ended up attending sessions on Race, History, Philosophy, Social Action, and Economics, although my educational background and major fields of interest include Sciences, Health, and Indigenous Studies (and exclude History, Philosophy, and Economics). Why?
- I wanted to learn something new
- I wanted to hear from at least one younger presenter (Economics/Adib Sedig)
- I wanted to attend the Wilmette Institute session (which meant that I would have to miss what looked to be a promising talk about “Water and Light: Reflections on Metaphor in the Bahá’í Writings”)
Checking in was easier than I expected. Several persons were working at a long desk at the top of the stairs just outside the ballroom where plenary sessions were to be held. No one asked me to identify myself. I just picked up my badge from the desk where they were very neatly arranged in alphabetical order. The ballroom easily seated all the participants (over one thousand). Two large screens, one on each side of the room at the front, allowed everyone to see the stage clearly. All the plenary sessions were recorded and will be available for viewing in due course.
Every plenary session started with devotions, but prayers were not said in the breakout sessions, which started very promptly. There was plenty of time to get from one session to another, which was good because sessions were held on three different floors, and the hotel layout was a little confusing (this was not just my problem; I heard others commenting on this as well). To be fair, a hotel diagram was included in the conference materials. However, it was too small to be read easily and confused me even more. Additional signage would have helped. However, the complaints I heard were not serious. Most people I passed in the ample hallways seemed to be happily catching up with friends.
Space is my enemy in writing about a conference that offered so many choices. I will comment on only about half of the sessions I attended. I will try to convey the most significant of the many things I learned and to share what might encourage you in your own spiritual and (if applicable) academic journey.
Encounter with Old Friends: A Lesson in Family Unity. On day one, while peering nosily behind me to see how full the room was, I saw someone I had last seen in Jamaica about fifteen years ago. When we first met, he was chair of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Jamaica. His home was the site of my first encounter with the Bahá’í community in the year 2000. He had hosted a fireside at which his mother—a pioneer to Jamaica from Iran—made a presentation about women in the Bahá’í Faith. I remember being extremely impressed with his three children, especially the older boy—I think he was around seven years old at the time—who seemed to me far too young to be able to read so fluently the rather long words from the Bahá’í writings.
At dinnertime I ran into my esteemed friend again, who asked if I would like to join his family for dinner. Of course, I said yes. The family included my friend’s mother, his beautiful wife, and all three now-grown offspring, plus other relatives, young and old. I sat at the end of the table with the youth, and we shared small bites of each other’s food, reminiscing about island life.
At the start of the dinner I made the huge mistake of quietly asking our waitress to bill me separately. I nearly got knocked on the head with my host’s cane for that divisive action. When he saw me at the cash register, trying to pay, he said “No-no-no. No way. You are my guest.” But the way he said it, I knew he meant that we were family and that he and his other family members had truly enjoyed my company. I was at once overjoyed and very slightly ashamed. My sense of independence has been over-developed during decades of being the only Bahá’í in a small and uncohesive family.
“Uprooting Racism in America.” Because of my role as faculty on the Wilmette Institute course on Racism in America, I felt I needed to attend at least one of the several ABS sessions on that topic. On Thursday morning, in the very first session “Uprooting Racism in America,” we studied a February 4, 2018, letter from the Department of the Secretariat of the Universal House of Justice to an individual. The room became so full that we split into four groups. Some highlights of that session included these:
- A fellow Wilmette Institute faculty member commented that “unity is created by first sharing our reality . . . it means a lot of listening.”
- A very active friend spoke about how she joined the Bahá’í community. At her first Bahá’í meeting—which was meant to be a one-off, business-like, “fact-finding” mission—she was asked to read a prayer and firmly tried to decline. “You can read . . .?” was the host’s response. That evening she went home with a prayer book and a copy of The Hidden Words. A few meetings later the host drew her aside and explained he would not be able to make it for the next meeting and asked if she would prepare the devotions.
- Someone also noted that the Bahá’í way of uprooting racism is to remove the roots of every prejudice and misconception about our shared humanity and that the process must include breaking down all barriers to unity including socio-economic, gender, age, and educational barriers.
- Yet another person said that it is certain that the Bahá’í community “will never withdraw” from its “commitment to a path of systematic action and learning” “until the problems of race are completely resolved, no matter how long and difficult the path may be.” In other words, the Bahá’í family will be there for each other, come what may.
Lunch at Waffle House and on the Streets. I knew I was not going to be able to attend Tamara Pearl’s Friday presentation on “Innovative Programming for the Indigenization and Decolonization of Law Schools and Beyond.” But when I arrived at the Waffle House on Thursday for lunch, Tamara was there with her young daughter, and we sat together. She shared with me a little about indigenous Canadian history and culture. I shared what I knew about the indigenous people of Jamaica (history books say they all died, but that is not entirely true) and about the Maroons (native Africans who escaped slavery and retreated to the hills, bravely and successfully fought for their freedom and eventually made treaties with the Europeans who had tried to enslave them).
As it turned out, Tamara and I had both observed a homeless gentleman lying on the other side of the street from the restaurant and had independently ordered extra food to take to him. He had moved by the time we left, but we gave the food and drink to another gentleman who asked us for change.
“What is the Bahá’í Faith? The History of Summaries.” I spent much of Thursday afternoon with Dr. Robert Stockman, the director of the Wilmette Institute. In “What is the Bahá’í Faith? The History of Summaries,” he looked with his historian’s eye at how the Faith and its principles have been described over the years by Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and some of the early Bahá’í teachers in the United States. It was fascinating to see how the name for the Faith has developed from Baha’ism to Bahá’í Faith. Over the years I have rehearsed various answers to the question “What is the Bahá’í Faith,” but I still tend to get tongue-tied when asked. Dr. Stockman made the point that as the Faith has progressed, some of the principles that were stressed in the early twentieth century in North America (such as, loyalty to government; abolition of weapons of war; the special place of agriculture) seem much less important now, while others that were not stressed earlier (for example, harmony of religion and science and independent investigation of truth) seem to be very important for inquirers today.
Dr. Stockman’s early-afternoon session was followed immediately by a mid-afternoon session providing information about the Wilmette Institute. One young audience member expressed an interest in the Wilmette Institute’s 2017 course Gifts of the Spirit: The Spiritual Practice of Creative Writing (it is being repeated in May 2019) and shared (aloud, with sincere feeling) this poem:
Help Me, God
© Nabil Ahlhauser
I prayed to God
Answer my prayer
Answer my prayer
Answer my prayer
And then, I tried again
Hear my cry
Hear my cry
Hear my cry
Before, I cried
Tears streaming down my face
Without any grace
In the silence
“God is dead” they would tell me
“God is dead” I would hear
“God is dead” I
—I’m not afraid to say I struggle
Not every day do I pray
Most of my desires lead to hellfires
I Don’t Love God
But I do still believe He exists
I have no simple proof
Not a catchphrase, a prayer, or a routine
A way of worshiping that works
All I have are moments
Times I was caught in the rain
Found by friends
Brought in by their blessings
We would talk
We would pray
We would sing
And I would cry
“Help, me, God”
I used to be arrogant enough to reject God
Conceited enough to command Him
Prideful enough to stand as His equal
I didn’t love God
Didn’t give up on me
He would still reply
He would still respond
He would still answer
When He would whisper
Would always love me
A great deal of information about the Wilmette Institute can be found quite easily on its website, especially in its Frequently Asked Questions. That could be why so few people attended the session. On reflection, the Institute has decided to make next year’s session much more specific. Further, inspired by the ubiquity and facility of mobile phone use, the Institute is now offering mobile registration as an option for its online courses. Even though the turnout for the session was small, still, it was helpful to have a chance to talk to a few people about the Wilmette Institute.
“Developing the ‘Eye of Oneness’: An Integrative Analysis.” Of all the sessions I attended, Dr. Kamran Sedig’s late Thursday afternoon session called “Developing the ‘Eye of Oneness’: An Integrative Analysis” most captured my attention. Dr. Sedig, an Associate Professor of cognitive, computer, and information sciences at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada, spoke with humility and an attitude of sincere awe and devotion. He covered a great deal of philosophical background in his presentation, explaining first the way humans have, in trying to understand the world we live in, relied on the basic dual concepts of “oneness” or identity and “manyness” or variety. He quoted Francis Collins, leader of Human Genome Project, Director of National Institutes of Health and Winner of Presidential Medal of Freedom and National Medal of Science, who wrote: “Wherever my concept of oneness comes from, it does not come from the bodily senses, for by my senses I can only come to know physical things.”
Dr. Sedig included additional quotations from several notable sources in his slide show. Each slide condensed the deep thoughts and conclusions of years of study and research. Some of his quotations that particularly struck me are these:
In ordinary life, we are not aware of the unity of all things, but divide the world into separate objects and events. . . . To believe that our abstract concepts of separate “things” and “events” are realities of nature is an illusion.
……….—Fritjof Capra, Professor and Physicist, University of Vienna, Berkley, San Francisco
It is a magnificent feeling to recognize the unity of complex phenomena which appear to be things quite apart from the direct visible truth.
. . . every object is deeply stirred by the vibrating influence emanating from Thine [God’s] invincible Will. Thou art nearer unto all things than all things.
……….—The Báb, Selections from the Writings of The Báb 195
A highlight of Dr. Sediq’s presentation was a video clip from a National Geographic video featuring a visualization of the concept of a vibrating, ethereal string field. The portion of the video that Kamran showed starts at 17:16 with the relevant segment ending at about 21:00. The main points of the video are:
- There is one unified field of existence.
- All forces arise within this universal field.
- This field is non-material.
- All phenomena are ripples on this one ocean of existence.
- Everything arises from vibrations of this super string field.
Another helpful video is “String Theory Explained—What is The True Nature of Reality?”
“Social Identity and the Oneness of Humankind: Reconciling the Universal with the Particular.” My very busy Thursday ended with one of the plenary sessions. The presenter, Shahrzad Sabet, is a Fellow at the University of Maryland’s Bahá’í Chair for World Peace Program. Because her talk contained some unfamiliar (to me) philosophical ideas, I had a little trouble following her train of thought. But the talk was very engaging and, with the help of the practical examples she provided, I felt that I understood what she meant by a “uniquely unbounded and non-contingent social identity.” As described in her abstract of her talk, an unbounded, non-contingent identity is one “based on our membership in a single human race.” Shahrzad showed that such an identity is “stable,” “invulnerable,” and “not susceptible to conflict and division.” Her thesis was that “contrary to the usual philosophical solutions,” it is, in fact, “through the universal” (through the oneness of humankind) that “the particular is secured and promoted” (“particular” meaning the diversity and individuality of members of the human race). This idea of freedom through the universal as opposed to the particular reminded me of the Christian notion (popular in the land of my birth) of true freedom as being “enslaved” to Christ/the Will of God/Love. Shahrzad’s concept of an unbounded, non-contingent identity can be found in one of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s talks in Paris Talks:
The love of family is limited. . . . Frequently members of the same family disagree, and even hate each other.
Patriotic love is finite; the love of one’s country causing hated of all others, is not perfect love! . . .
The love of race is limited. To love our own race may mean hatred of all others, and even people of the same race often dislike each other.
The great unselfish love for humanity is bounded by none of these imperfect bonds; this is the one perfect love, possible to all mankind.
……….‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in Paris Talks 9:6–9, 14: 26–27
“Neuroscience, Ethics, and Religion: Moving Beyond Coexistence.” On Friday morning, in the plenary panel discussion by faculty from Emery University on “Neuroscience, Ethics, and Religion: Moving beyond Coexistence,” the speakers were not Bahá’ís. Neuroethics is a very new field (merely “a decade old”), and Emory University in Atlanta happens to have a pioneering research program. The question-and-answer session was conducted in an innovative way: audience members sent questions by email (smartphone) to “firstname.lastname@example.org,” and the facilitator read the questions to the panel from her laptop. For me, a highlight of the Q/A session was this:
Q: How can insights from religion be a form of knowledge?
A: The panel seemed to agree that they cannot. One panelist noted that “compassion is affective and not cognitive.” Another said that in science, “peers check each other’s work.”
My thought about the answer is this: I see progressive revelation as a somewhat similar process, in which the Manifestations of God validate the lives and missions of their predecessors, as well as provide guidance for future experimenters (seekers of truth) about what to look for in future Manifestations. I also think that compassion can have cognitive aspects. Bahá’í teachings ask us to consciously look for the good qualities in others (and to forget the bad qualities) and to help and serve others for the sake of God, not for the sake of people. This type of religious practice seems to me to be aimed at changing the way we think as well as the way we behave.
A Home-Cooked Meal. On Friday evening, after participating in two excellent seminars in the Social Action track, I felt compelled to leave the ABS conference early to spend time with my mother-in-law. She is a very independent and private person, and I did not know her well. I had planned to take her out for dinner. But when I arrived at her home, I found her putting the finishing touches on a skillet of cubed chicken stewed with kale, cabbage, and spices. This was an unexpected bounty, as Mom had “known” I would be out late every night of the conference. The food and the relaxed company were exactly what I needed. I became aware that my mother-in-law is someone who listens very carefully. She knew the type of food I liked, not because she had ever cooked for me, but because she had noted my preferences at restaurant meals. Her combination of quiet cognition and compassion is unforgettable and inspiring.
“‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Efforts to Bring about World Peace during His Travels in the West.” A Saturday afternoon break-out session focused on one particular aspect of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s work in the United States: His attendance at the 1912 Lake Mohonk Conference on international arbitration. The presenter, Kathryn Jewett-Hogenson, an attorney and an author, provided fascinating historical details about the genesis of the Mohonk conference. She also read excerpts from English translations of letters ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had written to the conference organizers. That an unknown (and foreign) personage, espousing a very little-known religion, should have secured the required invitation to such a gathering was, according to Kathryn, something of a miracle. The extent of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s influence on the eminently influential minds who were gathered at Mohonk may be debatable, but that He chose such a venue, and the respect and restraint with which He apparently presented to the conference the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh, perhaps holds clues for future collaborations between Bahá’í institutions and other agencies with whom they may wish to work.
“Building Community with Refugee Populations in Atlanta.” On Sunday morning, as the Conference neared its conclusion, I attended two plenary sessions. The first, “Building Community with Refugee Populations in Atlanta,” consisted of three panelists and a video (soon to be published as a full-fledged documentary), exploring life in the city of Clarkston, Georgia, “the most ethnically diverse square mile in America.” Clarkston’s Mayor, Ted Terry, is the youngest mayor in Clarkston’s 135-year history. He has challenged the status quo in accepting refugees who were being turned away from other Georgia cities. One panelist observed that the experience of Bahá’ís visiting in Clarkston was not quite what they expected: They did not need to teach the people of Clarkston to build community because they already were a community. For example, Bahá’ís would come to visit and find dozens of shoes by the door of a dwelling because people were already gathered to pray.
“The Residue of Memory & the Clarion Call of Truth: Healing through Reclamation and Remembrance.” To keep my account of my first visit to an ABS Conference relatively short, I have had to leave out a number of eye-opening sessions, including the Saturday night plenary at which Ambassador Andrew Young spoke and “Diversity Is Not the Goal: Exploring Transformational Principles in the Quest for Racial Justice” with Homa Tavangar (author of Growing Up Global) and Eric Dozier (activist and musician). But I cannot close without mentioning the final Sunday morning plenary session with Masud Olufani, an Atlanta-based mixed media artist and actor. Olufani was joined on the stage by Minka Wiltz, who stood on a wooden box crooning (at times quietly, at times in a glorious operatic soprano) “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” while Olufani performed “Blocked at Five Points.” “Blocked” is a tribute and testament to the forgotten history of the Five Points train station. The station is now a hub for MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) travelers—who, Olufani explained, are mostly African Americans—to transport themselves to all parts of the greater Atlanta area. In the nineteenth century the station was the location of a Thomas Frazer and Company slave auction house. As Olufani spoke in deep and resonant tones, the video screens at the sides of the stage looped photographs of an early morning scene—commuters drifting to and from the station entrance—surreptitiously superimposed with ghostly images of the auction house.
Conclusions/Four Revelations. For me, ABS was a very worthwhile investment. I do NOT think of myself as an academic and was very pleasantly surprised to find that the Association for Bahá’í Studies conference is not a conference suitable only for academics, in the same sort of way that a Bahá’í devotional is not a devotional only for Bahá’ís and that family members do not necessarily share the same genes, the same tastes, or the same religion.
ABS started a kind of hunger in me for further study and consultation. When I returned to South Carolina, I started to study the Kitáb-i-Iqán with my husband and two friends. We have been meeting every week and learning far more than we could have learned if we tried to study the volume our own. My next steps? More study of course—online with the Wilmette Institute (as a faculty member, I usually audit a couple of courses each year)—and, more important, more group study, which has been extremely rewarding. And, maybe not next year, but one of these years, I hope to have something worthy of sharing with the ABS family.
Until then, here are four thoughts that will color and shape my journey through the rest of the year and into 2019:
- Family is a treasure: Celebrate and cultivate it while you can.
- The family of humankind is the key to freedom from all limitations.
- Unity is a complex phenomenon, with countless avenues for exploration and research.
- There are layers to everything, and the vibrating Will of God pervades all.